Unmanned helicopters in a field with vehicles and shelters in the background.

Unmanned helicopters.

Robots fly to the rescue

The development of potentially lifesaving unmanned aircraft capable of flying in conditions considered too dangerous for manned aircraft, is being fast-tracked under the joint research venture Project ResQu. (8:24)

  • 13 July 2012 | Updated 17 July 2012

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Transcript

Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I’m Glen Paul. In times of crisis, such as natural disasters, emergency services aircrafts play a pivotal role in rescue operations – you’ve probably seen images of helicopters winching people to safety, or being used to drop in supplies. However there are limitations; some aircraft may not be equipped for extended missions, and dangerous flying weather can quickly ground aircraft.

So what happens if you’re out there and can’t wait? Well hopefully, thanks to a new project involving unmanned aircraft, help is on its way. A team of CSIRO Scientists, together with the Queensland University of Technology, Boeing Research and Technology Australia, and Boeing subsidiary Insitu Pacific, are working on an initiative to fast track research into unmanned aircraft for use in emergencies.

To discuss project ResQu, spelt R-E-S-Q-U, I’m joined by CSIRO’s Doctor Jonathan Roberts. Jonathan, I imagine it will be a little while before we see unmanned aerial vehicles winching people out of danger, but just how capable are these aircraft for use in emergencies?

Doctor Roberts: OK, so we think that these sorts of aircraft are more applicable to actually finding people and locating them, and then being used to help direct conventional aircraft to actually doing the pulling people out of emergency situations. So everyone’s familiar with helicopters, and they’re typically used to winch people from trouble, or often to lower down supplies, but they don’t have a great capacity to sort of work for hours, and hours, and hours, searching for people, whereas these smaller unmanned aircraft that have a much longer flying time can be used to find people, and then as soon as they’re found can then direct the helicopters to exactly the right location to rescue people.

Glen Paul: And what about dropping in supplies, could they effectively manage that at the moment?

Doctor Roberts: Absolutely. Small supplies, very, very definitely. In fact we actually run a side project to this is the UAV Challenge, where we actually run a competition to do exactly that, where we invite students from all over the world to go and find a lost bushwalker and deliver some supplies to the lost bushwalker.

Glen Paul: Yep, I remember ‘Outback Joe’ from those earlier podcasts. What’s the average size of the aircraft you’re working with now?

Doctor Roberts: I always describe them as from a coffee table size to a sofa, that sort of size, so maybe with a wing span of anything up to 2½ or three metres for the six wing aircraft, and the helicopter’s rotor blades, maybe two metres diameter.

Glen Paul: Hmm, and people can find pictures of these on the CSIRO website too.

Doctor Roberts: Absolutely.

Glen Paul: OK. How autonomous then are these aircraft?

Doctor Roberts: Well, that’s our area of research, so and people probably see in the media constant reference to drones around the world, and these so called drones – we don’t like to call them drones, we think of drones as sort of dumb things, but we call them just unmanned aircraft – the sort of traditional ones that are featured in the media at the moment are usually remotely piloted, so there’s usually somebody on the ground, and there’s a radio link, and that person actually steers them. So they have sort of a control stick, and maybe foot pedals, and they pilot them in much the same way they would if they were onboard, but they’re just on the ground.

What we’re trying to do of course is go a step further with turning these aircraft into robots and have them actually work autonomously, so they will do the flying for themselves, and then the people that are on the ground will concentrate on looking at in detail what they’re finding, and what they’re seeing. So there may be people on the ground that are experts in search that will be able to see key things in the imagery to help them find people, or find whatever it is they’re looking for.

Glen Paul: What about though in times of crisis, things may be a little less organised than usual, you may have less in the way of air traffic control for manned choppers flying around looking to help people, could they operate side-by-side then with a UAV?

Doctor Roberts: It’s very likely that in a sort of situation where you had a major disaster, say floods is a good example, which we had in Queensland in the beginning of 2011, these sorts of aircraft, the autonomous aircraft, or the unmanned aircraft, will probably operate at a higher altitude to the helicopters doing the winching of personnel in that sort of scenario, so you would separate the aircraft in altitude, which is actually how air traffic control today works, planes and passenger aircraft are kept apart usually by different altitudes.

So we see that happening, where your helicopters will be working at the low level doing the picking of people up or dropping things down and your autonomous aircraft will be working at a safe height above that, which actually helps because they then get a good field of view and actually helps them find things.

Glen Paul: Yeah. And you did touch earlier on the military use of UAV’s, but what other roles can you see them being employed for?

Doctor Roberts: Other sort of roles are where you don’t really want to put a person in a potentially risky situation, and particularly in helicopters, so there are a range of applications where if you could avoid putting a person there, then you’d probably like to do that. So classic examples are if you’re inspecting things very closely, obviously you don’t want to fly too close to structures in helicopters, but sometimes you want to get close to inspect them in fine detail, so that’s an example. So you might be inspecting cooling towers, you might want to fly underneath a bridge and inspect underneath a bridge where you wouldn’t normally be able to see it, and they’re sort of situations where it’s probably not a good idea to put people in helicopters very close up because if you had a sudden gust of wind obviously you have a chance that you could have a collision, so that’s one example.

Other examples are when you have to put people in rotary aircraft and helicopters and fly them over areas that are difficult to land in. So one of the tricky jobs of a helicopter pilot is as they’re flying along they’re always looking for a safe place to land should their engine fail on a helicopter, as they just fly along normally, so at a moment’s notice, if the engine fails or goes wrong, they can land.

So in situations where there aren’t many clearings, it’s not advisable to routinely stick people in helicopters. So say you were flying over kilometres, and kilometres, and kilometres of rain forest and you’re engine should fail, it’s hard to find a spot to land, just difficult. So those situations where you need to fly in those areas, and that might be for inspecting for weeds growing in rainforests, or doing other sort of rainforest type inspection work, in an ideal world you’d use robot aircraft. So should anything go wrong, and you can’t find anywhere to land, you know, there’s nobody in harm’s way there, nobody’s put at risk.

Glen Paul: Hmm, there’s huge possibilities. What’s the take up been like commercially?

Doctor Roberts: The take up of unmanned aircraft has been slower than I guess the public would think, and that’s a lot to do with safety regulations, and there’s very good reasons for this. Every country has an aircraft sort of regulator, and in Australia that’s known as CASA, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and they of course are responsible for all of the safety regulations.

The regulations are sort of undergoing reviews at the moment, so that unmanned aircraft can be included in the regulations, and everybody can operate in a safe way. That’s ongoing and is active, and CASA are working with researchers like ourselves, and with operators of unmanned aircraft, and potential operators of unmanned aircraft, and any other people that can have input here into exactly how these regulations should look in the end, so that we can all operate together safely.

And of course there’s certain technologies required for certain types of unmanned aircraft to actually meet the satisfaction of CASA.

Glen Paul: Now with all the plus sides that you’ve mentioned there, do you feel that conventional pilots may feel threatened by the rise of the machines, so to speak?

Doctor Roberts: I don’t think so, no. I think the sort of applications that unmanned aircraft will be used for are probably things that actually aren’t done at all at the moment, so I think they’re quite unlikely to replace existing pilots, so I think there’ll just be new things these smaller aircraft can do. So no, I don’t think pilots should feel like they’re going to be done out of a job.

Glen Paul: I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear that. Look, it’s an exciting future, Jonathan. I thank you very much for sharing it with us today.

Doctor Roberts: You’re welcome.

Glen Paul: Doctor Jonathan Roberts. And for more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter at CSIROnews, or like us on Facebook.